There's a lot that goes on behind the scenes when it comes to planning conferences. With the sheer number of events in the marketing industry alone, the competition for quality speakers - who may already have fairly booked schedules - is fierce.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Vasil Azarov, a partner with Startup Socials and the creative founder behind Growth Marketing Conference. We had a chance to talk about what it takes to bring in world-class speakers, and how a new speaker can get their foot in the door to land more gigs.

Standing Out in 1,000 Crowded Conference Halls

Sujan: There are a lot of conferences happening in our industry. In the marketing tech and startup field, there's at least one every week, and maybe one great one each month. What do you do to make Growth Marketing Conference stand out?

Vasil: I've come to realize there are three keys to success with organizing a conference. Agenda, Curation, and Experience. It's about speakers and content overall, and getting someone who is a subject matter expert.

How you curate and position them is also important, in addition to how you put the agenda together. We structure our agenda and make sure it flows as one product. It's not just full of all-star speakers. It takes quite a bit of planning to orchestrate the whole thing.

We place a big emphasis on that. The last part is creating the experience at an event. It's not about expensive locations or impressing people with food. We try to set it up so there are smaller events and experiences at the larger event that people will go on to talk about.

Something we started doing recently is that when attendees register, we try to meet them in person before the conference to find out what their expectations are and how we can exceed them.

Finding Mic-Drop Worthy Speakers

Sujan: Do you have a process for choosing the right speakers?

Vasil: When we started the growth marketing event in 2013, we were the only growth hacker conference around. There were other digital marketing events in the space and they were charging like two thousand per ticket and had a lot of sponsored speakers with different levels of experience.

We have strict criteria for speakers. They must be active practitioners, they must be engaging, and they must be recognizable brands. It needs to be someone who has done something in the last year so we can learn from their recent case studies.

Sujan: That sounds like a rigorous process. How do you select the right content from speakers, or do you have such a good selection process that you already know the content they bring in will be great?

Vasil: I get requests daily, mostly from PR agents helping someone become a professional keynote speaker. That's not someone I really want at my conferences. Usually, we hand-pick the speakers by watching webinars, meeting people at conferences, or getting referrals from our current speakers. From time to time, we do cold outreach. It's not easy getting world-class speakers.

If I don't know the speaker personally or I've never heard them speak, I'll try to find out about their experiences and interests. I'll ask them to provide topics to see how they fit into our agenda, and then I let them know I'll get back with them.

Making the Pitch to Speak at a Conference

Sujan: What you've said is connecting the dots for me. When I've pitched to speak at conferences in the past, I was initially rejected, but then those same people would come back and invite me to speak the following year.

Vasil: If you're trying to pitch a conference to be a speaker, the worst pitch ever is, "Are you still accepting speakers at your conference?" We get that all the time. It would be so much better if they said, "I was a speaker at X conference and my video was rated in the top three" or something like that. That's already interesting. Give the organizer some content to work with because it'll make you stand out.

Sujan: How could someone with no speaking experience get their foot in the door? What are some tips for getting started?

Vasil: They should explore smaller meetups first. If I see a topic that's good and fitting for a workshop we host, then I would take on someone I didn't know. That's a good way to get started.

Try to record yourself on video at those meetups. If the event doesn't have a video recorder, then hire one yourself to record you. If you're a strong, engaging speaker, you can send that video to higher-level events and you'll stand out from the crowd.

You should also contribute an article or create a webinar. That's something we look for when working with a speaker we don't know. We ask them to blog and to do a webinar with us to see what kind of feedback we get from the community. If the feedback is great, we want that speaker on the main stage.

Promoting Speakers to Build Buzz

Sujan: You're essentially making people look good. And it works both ways. If you go to a meetup and hire a videographer, they can edit the video to make that person look good. Then they look good at your conference, too. No one is going to say no to free marketing.

Vasil: Something else we do for our speakers is that we promote them heavily. We feature speakers on our landing pages and we also get a copywriter to write emails to our community. We do graphics and custom landing pages that also promote the speaker. This way, they can send their own audience to a customized landing page.

Sujan: Any other tips or ninja stuff you do to get great speakers?

Vasil: In addition to the custom landing pages for each speaker, we also create a special video explaining what the conference is all about. We include a picture of the speaker with the copy, saying our community wants them to speak. The request is simple: "Would you speak at Startup Marketing Conference?" and all they have to do is click yes or no to confirm.

We send potential speakers an email with links to landing pages and this approach has helped us book several speakers who previously hadn't heard of us.

Sujan: Anything else you want to add?

Vasil: For sure. The conference is coming up soon. Growth Marketing Conference opens December 7th and 8th in Silicon Valley. We expect around 1,000 marketers and entrepreneurs from around the world to attend. Get registered for it!

Will you be attending Growth Marketing Conference? Let me know in the comments - we might spot you there: